Business

Live where you work? In Waltham, that’s not so easy

A big apartment complex is being built on Waltham’s Cooper Street, the site of a building that burned down last summer.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A big apartment complex is being built on Waltham’s Cooper Street, the site of a building that burned down last summer.

These are boom times in Waltham. From Route 128, you can see cranes erecting office buildings and hotels. The gleaming headquarters of shoe companies and engineering firms stand alongside newly built shopping centers. And the city added more than 11,000 jobs from 2010 to 2016, a number topped statewide only by Boston and Cambridge.

But Waltham’s economic growth is missing a key ingredient: new housing.

During the same period those thousands of jobs were being created, the city of 63,000 people — up 3 percent from 2010 — added just a few hundred homes, most of them in two downtown apartment buildings. One more apartment complex has since opened, and another is under construction, delayed by a devastating fire last summer. But housing advocates say even those units will do little to quench the demand for housing in Waltham, where home prices have climbed 30 percent in the past three years.

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It’s a common complaint in the suburbs along Route 128, a belt of communities that have become ground zero for Greater Boston’s housing crunch. As people seek to live closer to where they work, job-rich towns from Burlington to Needham are not adding enough housing to keep up, industry experts say. That, in turn, is pushing up home prices and rents, forcing workers into longer commutes.

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It’s also one of the reasons more companies are considering leaving the suburbs for downtown Boston.

“The people who want to work at all these companies need somewhere to live,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the Route 128 Business Council. “We’re creating a very, very tough situation.”

Years into a building frenzy that has been concentrated in Boston and a few neighboring cities, regional housing advocates and the Baker administration are seeking to spread more housing development to cities and towns across Eastern Massachusetts. Governor Charlie Baker has set a goal of 135,000 new units statewide by 2025 and has launched a program, called Housing Choice, to reward those that make it easier to build.

He also is urging the Legislature to pass a bill that would make it easier for municipalities to change their zoning to add more housing.

Girls cross Moody Street in Waltham with their bicycles.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Girls cross Moody Street in Waltham with their bicycles.

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But Baker has been careful to keep his bill, and his broader housing efforts, purely optional, with incentives for municipalities that want to build, but no consequences for those that don’t.

“We like voluntary programs,” Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said at a recent State House event honoring cities and towns taking part in Housing Choice. “We don’t like to dictate the terms.”

All but absent from that event — and from the Housing Choice program in general — were representatives of Route 128’s suburbs, places where plans for badly needed housing often fester and die amid worries about the burdens on municipal services, schools, and traffic. Plenty of people in Waltham share those concerns.

Known for its Moody Street restaurant scene and its history as the Watch City, Waltham is built out in many areas, its neighborhoods lined with one- and two-family houses.

There are relatively few large undeveloped lots. When such sites appear on the market, they are sometimes bought by the city, to preserve them as open space. Unlike Watertown, Belmont, and Lexington next door, Waltham does not have a state-certified housingplan outlining its housing goals, and the planning staff is far smaller than in nearby cities such as Newton. Major projects face a thorny permitting process involving the mayor and a 14-member City Council.

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“It’s very difficult, and some developers say not worth the effort,” said Jennifer Van Campen, executive director of Metro West Collaborative Development. “Basically, if you can’t win over all the city councilors and the mayor, your project is doomed.”

Still, some persevere.

A few large apartment buildings have been permitted in recent years, mostly downtown in formerly industrial areas along the Charles River — including an old watch factory that’s now loft apartments — where special zoning rules make multifamily development easier.

The Merc, a 259-unit building, opened last summer on Moody Street across from Waltham Common — but it took a decade to acquire the site, plan the project, and build it. The building filled up fast, with a mix of empty-nesters and young professionals paying rents that start at $2,600 for a one-bedroom, said Peter Standish, senior vice president at Northland Investment Corp., which built the Merc.

“It has really gone exceptionally well,” Standish said. “We’ve gotten a lot of demand from people working on Route 128.”

Around town, some people point to those buildings and the Route 128 office parks as examples of Waltham already being overdeveloped, said longtime City Councilor Robert Logan.

“If you’re talking to housing advocates, you’ll hear we need a lot more,” said Logan, who chairs the committee that permits large projects. “If you’re talking to people with more neighborhood concerns, they worry about traffic and schools.”

Waltham’s school enrollment has grown by nearly one-fifth in the past decade, and the City Council voted to invoke eminent domain to take a large tract of land owned by the Catholic Stigmatine order for a new high school.

Roads are often congested, though housing advocates say that’s partly because so many people from elsewhere drive into Waltham for work.

Waltham’s sprawling office parks also generate a large share of the city’s property tax revenue, especially compared with nearby municipalities, where homeowners foot most of the bills. If the city opted to use undeveloped or abandoned commercial sites, such as the former Polaroid campus, for housing instead of for office buildings, homeowners would feel the pinch in their tax bills, Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said.

Lizzy's ice cream shop is popular Moody Street eatery.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Lizzy's ice cream shop is popular Moody Street eatery.

“Route 128 is a commercial district,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “I don’t believe in taking commercial property off commercial tax rolls as it negatively impacts the city’s residential taxpayers.”

But there is one way housing developers can force the issue: the controversial state law known as 40B. In municipalities where less than 10 percent of the housing is classified as affordable, the law provides a blunt instrument against local opposition to a project. It allows the state to override zoning objections for buildings in which one-fourth of the units are offered at below-market prices.

But getting a 40B project approved takes time.

Alliance Residential, a developer, has been trying for three years to build a 195-unit apartment complex on Second Avenue, just west of Route 128. It’s planned for the site of a long-shuttered aluminum warehouse, near the biotech firm Sanofi Genzyme and other well-paying companies.

Making it happen shouldn’t be so complicated, said Alliance’s managing partner, Mike Boujoulian. “I’m not splitting atoms trying to build housing here,” he said. “There are just a lot of people who work in Waltham who would like to live there.”

But Waltham officials have resisted, calling the site inappropriate for the dense housing Alliance proposes and arguing the city has met 40B’s 10 percent threshold because enough of its land is devoted to affordable housing — even if it is hundreds of actual units short of the benchmark.

A state appeals board in February sided with Alliance, and the project is now back before Waltham’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

The fight has added years of delay and “millions of dollars” to the $75 million project, Boujoulian said, headaches that drive many developers to simply build elsewhere. But with his February victory in hand, he’s hoping to finally win permits and break ground soon.

“Waltham’s such a great town for our customers,” Boujoulian said. “I would do twice as many units here, if I could.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.